American conservatives hate government until they love it. Their ideological flexibility is on full display in their advocacy of a massive increase in America’s military and political role in the world.

In their view, we should be employing our military not just to defeat opposing armed forces, but also as the central part of an effort to install functioning central governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, while simultaneously promoting the social cohesion these countries now lack. And in an impressive display of indifference to any impact this would have on the budget deficits they claim to deplore, they put no time limit on our presence.

In fact, they are sharply critical of President Obama because he has made it our policy that the fighting on the ground must be done in both countries by their own militaries. They complain that we are not sending American combat troops to win their civil wars.

The American military is a superb combat force, but it cannot end corruption, bring about ethnic and religious harmony or instill a will to fight in either country. Even less can it force cooperation among mutually antagonistic factions in Syria or Libya.

What is it that conservatives see in an American government that they believe is incapable of expanding health care or restraining irresponsible financial manipulation that leads them to believe we can transform these deeply troubled societies through the use of our armed forces?

The insistence on an indefinite combat role for America, at least in Iraq and Afghanistan and almost certainly elsewhere, relies on another glaring inconsistency in their approach to government. Much of their current criticism of Obama is that he too often acts by exercise of executive power. They denounce as an abrogation of democracy his efforts to restrain climate change or end the deportation of people brought to our country as children who have ever since been law-abiding, productive residents. But when it comes to the single most important decision a national government can take – sending our troops into battle to kill and be killed as a means of shaping events elsewhere in the world – their view of how our government should work does a complete reversal. They argue fervently, passionately and continually that his refusal to act unilaterally to send Americans into battle is not just a mistake, but a dereliction of his duty.

This attack on the president for his failure to make war without congressional authorization already has become a theme among Republican candidates for president. The one exception is Rand Paul, whose refusal to join the more-war caucus is cited as a major obstacle to increasing his party support.

The last point to be made is that the Republicans attacking Obama for not significantly expanding our military role could give him the congressional mandate to do so if they wished. They control both Houses and, in fact, pending before them is a request from the president to give him some authority for more involvement – increased bombing of ISIS with some American on-the-ground presence to coordinate the activity. But they are refusing to act on it, and the explanation for this passivity is very revealing.

The Republicans believe the president has not asked for enough military intervention. They want to send ground troops into the area to do much more than help with airstrikes. So the obvious question arises. Why don’t they amend his draft bill to give him the power they want him to exercise? They regularly use their undoubted right to change anything he submits, and of course to initiate their own legislation. Why in this case are they refusing to vote and then complaining that they don’t like what he proposes?

The answer is that they know that the majority of Americans agree on this issue much more with Obama than with them. Recognizing strong popular opposition to the reintroduction of American troops into the fighting, their leadership does not want to ask their members to vote to do so.

In summary, the Republicans who want a greatly expanded American military involvement in Iraq and Syria know that the public disagrees. Their response is to refuse to play the role in this decision the Constitution – and their own rhetoric on executive authority – calls for and instead sharply criticize the president for declining to act unilaterally to send more Americans into war.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: BarneyFrank